Dead Eurocrats

The way things look.
Feb. 27 1997 3:30 AM

Dead Eurocrats

The colorlessness of the European Community's money.

Euro notes

Printed money, like the government budgets behind it, is conceived in optimism, if not in fantasy. The very designs on the bills--such as the fortresslike Treasury that appears on our $10 note--seem to promise a happy future of redemption amid prosperity. The bills aren't called promissory notes for nothing. What they promise is a flush till.

In this time-honored spirit, the new designs for the uniform currency of the European Community offer beguiling visions of unity and wealth, of responsible fiscal practice and thriving trade. Revealed last December and slated to go into use across the continent in a few years, these notes herald nothing less than a new and nobly unified Europe.

But for all their color and utopian promise, the new notes are lifeless. After all, coinage and currency usually reflect the character of the issuing state, and in this case the state is largely bureaucratic. The European Monetary Institution in Frankfurt, which under the 1991 Maastricht Treaty is charged with making the new Eurodollar, is described in its own literature as "an organization of the European Union, with legal personality." "Legal personality" is right on the mark. This is money designed not by bureaucrats but by Eurocrats, an all-star team of international paper-pushers.

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Everything about the new currency is vintage Eurocrat. Its name, the euro, was picked because it translates easily into almost every member country's language. Only Greek, with its own native alphabet, requires a second rendering of the name on the bill. Its counterfeitproof construction--which includes the use of unreproducible holographs--attests to the businesslike thought of its designers. And the decision to cut each of the seven notes in a different size (as well as a different color), to help the visually impaired, reveals the practical-minded Eurocrats' more considerate side.

The specifications laid out for the look of the new bank notes by the institution are as tortuously legalistic as the notorious specs issued in Brussels, the seat of the new Eurocracy, to regulate intracontinental trade. (The Brussels rules fastidiously prescribe every detail of what can and cannot be sold within the European economic community, yielding such creations as the Euroapple, already infamous in the orchards of Wye, Westfalia, and everywhere else that fruit cultivated for centuries has been found not to make the grade.) Back in June 1995, the European Monetary Institution set up committees to choose possible "themes" for the designs, settling at last on two: a historical one, the "ages and styles" of Europe; and a geometrical one, "abstract modern." These themes were broad enough to encompass almost anything individual designers could come up with. What they ruled out were portraits of people, especially portraits of leaders. Individuals inevitably raise the specter of nationalism. No dead presidents here.

Euro notes

The institution next held a competition, inviting design teams from the central banks of the various member nations to enter. Thirtysome entries flowed in, for consideration by a jury of 14 experts whose diverse national and professional backgrounds rivaled even the crew of Star Trek--ranging from Baron Philippe Robert-Jones, art historian and permanent secretary of the Academie Royale des Sciences des Lettres et des Beaux-arts de Belgique in Brussels, to Guido Crapanzano, rector of the Instituto di Scienze della Comunicazione in Milan. Last July the jury picked a winner, although it has kept the creators' identities unpublicized in the interest of future continental unity.

The winning designer went for the "ages and styles" theme, interpreted as such stock architectural elements as bridges, windows, and gateways. The eight ages in which these bridges, windows, and gateways appear are Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo, the age of iron and glass architecture, and the age of modern architecture. The colors are muted and staid, the illustrations as innocuous, impeccable, and dispassionate as those you would find in an economics textbook.

They're also supposed to have symbolic meaning. The windows and gates represent the spirit of openness and cooperation of the new confederation, we are told, while the bridge is a metaphor, as Bill Clinton showed, guaranteed not to go over the heads of the populace of any continent. More specifically, according to the literature, the bridge "epitomizes the dawn of the new common Europe with its common cultural heritage and the vision of a common future in the next century, indeed, the new millennium." These are not, mind you, actual existing bridges, like London Bridge or the Pont Neuf, but are "generic, and cannot be attributed to any particular place in any single country."

The result is an entire landscape of the generic--a place that is never France or Germany but always just Europe, as it might figure in landscapes chosen for American travel ads. Looking at them, you try to conjure up the people whose wallets these bills will inhabit, the new race of Europeans who will have no English umbrellas, French berets, or German bellies. It is not easy.

These notes, cool and considered, may make more practical sense than our greenbacks, with their wacky eye on the pyramid swiped from Masonic lore and the Model T-era automobile that still putts along in front of the Treasury building. But will they ever really circulate? According to the Maastricht Treaty, the currency will be put into circulation only after individual national economies have hit certain "targets"--such as a sufficiently low ratio of debt to gross domestic product. But these targets still seem far out of reach. Germany, which has the largest economy and the strongest currency in the group, was supposed to lead the way, but recently German unemployment has jumped to levels not seen since the Weimar Republic, and the mark is softening.

The European Monetary Institution promises that it will announce within the next two years the exact date on which the euros will go into use. It's supposed to be no later than Jan. 1, 2002. Not until then will we know whether this is real money or funny money--whether it will be worth a continental.

Phil Patton writes about design for Esquire, Wired, and other publications.

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